I’ll confess, there was some trickery involved in getting my ‘Adventure Partner’ to climb Mt Baker with me last week. You see, he’s not a big fan of winter, climbing a glacier in the nicest month of the year did not even register on his bucket list. Receiving an invitation to a dear friend’s 50th birthday extravaganza in Kelowna, BC allowed me to go in for the ‘big sell’ and add it to our trip. Food and wine has a tendency to fuzz his thinking, or is it boobs? Yes, probably boobs.
I was first drawn to the mountaineering schools on Mt Rainier and Mt Baker while researching after our great Mt Kilimanjaro experience. I wanted to become a true mountaineer which, to me, meant I needed to learn how to climb a glacier. I also found out that most of the major NA mountaineers train on these mountains as they have many of the elements of the big ones. Walking to the highest point you can walk on earth was a life changing experience, I could only imagine how much fun it would be to deal with snow, ice, avalanche potential and crevasses. I really didn’t feel I could call myself a ‘Mountaineer’ until I succeeded with a glacier climb.
So after months of training (Read about our training: https://karengeterdone.com/2015/08/03/not-easy-is-always-worth-doing/), we flew to Seattle and spent a day sightseeing and adjusting to the time change. The next day we bused to the ‘Gateway to the North Cascades’, Sedro-Woolley where our adventure would begin. Sedro-Woolley was like an old cowboy town with main street carvings denoting stand offs and eerily quiet for a Saturday afternoon.
Arriving a day early gave us the opportunity to meet one of our guides, Craig Von Hoy, also owner of the NW Mountain Shop. We wanted to arrange our rentals early and hopefully get used to glacier boots. Friendly and engaging from the start, we were relieved since we’d had a few short exchanges with the booking company before we left. We were enthralled with all his summit pictures and stories. He’s climbed well over 450 summits around the World including the top of Everest in 2004. We knew we were in good hands and would have fun which is always our main objective, even when taking on really difficult challenges.
Sunday morning, after a long night of packing and re-packing and weighing our backpacks, we walked over to meet Craig at his favourite breakfast place. All the locals just walk in before opening and help themselves to coffee while Joy gets herself ready in the back for the breakfast rush. There were probably 20 people in there by 6:30am and boy was the wait worth it. We are in the USA! Believe it or not a pancake can be made even worse for you by way of cake mix, butter and coconut. A ‘must try’ we were told and worth the early calories!
Not able to eat even half of what showed up, we packaged it and pondered the joys of eating the leftovers high in the Cascades later in the day. Craig told us to save our energy and take his truck back to the hotel, trustingly threw his keys at us and continued chatting with his buddies. Off we go to our motel to meet our other guide, Matt Schonwald, a certified ski and mountain guide as well as renowned avalanche expert and instructor with 100s of summits. He’s skied down some scary spots. Immediately, we felt comfortable as he drove us to the Shop to congregate with our climbing team. Right on time at 8am, sister’s Barbara and Katherine were waiting on the stairs as we arrive. In their early 30s, they live far apart but meet up for annual treks. This will be their first glacier climb. Indoor climbing, running and treks are their normal activities.
Matt and Craig get us immediately busy tearing apart our backpacks so they can teach us proper packing and double check our gear. It doesn’t take long before Matt is eliminating items.”16 wipes each should be more than enough for 4 days” as he’s insisting I won’t need the 2nd package I tucked in my bag. I would later regret listening. We all lost about 5 pds+ of gear due to the lesson and greatly improved weather. It’s a good thing since we would have to add the communal items such as pots, pan, cook stove, fuel etc. The weather looked like it would be much better than the long term forecast.
Then arrived Misha, David and Ilia. Misha and Ilia are a father and son team and David is a Frenchman who recently relocated to NYC for work. He wanted a NA adventure experience so he decided to join his boss, Misha, for the climb. It’s quickly apparent they have a playful banter. They all looked very fit and ready to take on the challenge. Misha seemed very intense and his adventures match with snowboarding, rock climbing and ultra marathoning. David is a runner who loves outdoor activities and Ilia is a geologist who is used to backpacking and trekking. It seemed to take us all several hours to refine our packs and learn how to pack dicey items like ice axes and crampons without tearing our bags. All of us needed to buy more food since dehydrated lunches wouldn’t be possible. Eating snacks on the fly is really all we’ll be able to pull off between breakfast and dinner.
Matt is our driver to the Mt Baker trailhead in Snoqualmie National Forest and he entertains us with his stories during the hour drive. What a gorgeous drive through the mountains. We arrive at the Ranger Station to get more information and now find out the true extent of “Leave No Trace” on Mt Baker. Kind of late to back out now but we will be packing out all of our human waste. We are used to digging holes but actually cleaning it up and carrying it with us for 4 days is a new and smelly proposition. We immediately wish our dog Zara could return the favours we’ve done for her the last 11 years. The station provides some ‘kits’ and off we head further up the mountain.
By noon, we’ve arrived at the trailhead for the Heliotroph Bridge Trail, rejuggled our backpacks again to add the new food and get the official group start picture.
The trail is immediately beautiful. It’s a lovely groomed day hiker trail at first that turns into a more rugged ‘geterdone’ kind of trail. Several day hikers announce that it’s not possible to cross the water ahead. Both our guides smile and thank the hikers than let out a laugh as soon as they moved past us. We continue onwards and upwards. Looks like we are going to test our Gortex boots. I am sure not able to do my Wonder Woman act wearing this heavy pack. We get to the first waterway, to find out it’s a wide waterfalls with slippery rocks and it must be crossed wearing our 50lb backpacks. I watch as the others seem to easily maneuvre the challenge then I head out. It goes well but you are always conscience that if you slip there is likely no ability to recover because your pack is so darn heavy. We all get across just great!
The trail gets steeper and more beautiful. Enormous trees with moss and hanging vines all around us. I start to notice that Ilia is breathing very heavily while we’re all chattering up the trail. He seems to be struggling but he doesn’t complain. It is an early sign.
We stop for a few short breaks to fuel and hydrate and take some pictures. The guides are keeping a strict pace and I believe they are testing our conditioning for the days ahead. The trail gets more serious and there comes a point where Ilia’s bag is being divided amongst the rest of the team so he can complete the trek.
After 4+ hours of steep trekking, we arrive at what will be our Base Camp for the next 2 days. It sits just below the glacier on a ridge overlooking hundreds of rolling hills and mountains with alpine flowers in full bloom and the sound of raging waterfalls off the glacier. There is even a goat high on a mountain ridge who stands guard during our stay. All of this AND a marvelous view of our goal, Mt Baker. It is everything I could ever dream of in a mountain campsite. It is bliss!
The rules on Mt Baker are unlike anything we’ve had to deal with before. We must be self sufficient and able to take care of ourselves on the mountain. This means carrying and doing everything ourselves; no porters, no chef, no ‘water boy’. The other aspect “Leave No Trace” takes on the most extreme of meanings. Not only do we leave everything better than when we arrived, meaning pick up any other garbage we might find, but also all human waste. All food must be eaten or carried out. To clean our dishes we must lick out what we can before spinning some hot water and lightly pouring over large boulders to diffuse anything that might attract animals. There is absolutely no cleaning of anything in the streams or waterfalls. Brushing your teeth is also a creative exercise in not destroying plants or scenting the ground. Urine is sterile but don’t go near a waterway or on plants. No walking on plants either! Alpine growth takes forever to grow and it is very easy to kill.
Once onsite, we all get busy with setting up our tents. It’s windy so Craig is eager to get the tents firmly ‘stoned’ to the ground. He’s clearly more experienced with this process as he added about 10 rocks to my efforts but he’s also had the experience of a tent flying away and leaving someone homeless for the night.
Tents up, cozy and ready, Jeff goes to find a ‘private place’ which is not easy high on a ridge with no trees. He trudges off with his ‘kit’ wondering how his aim is going to be on his first attempt (I’ll leave the details to your imagination). Ten minutes later he’s back announcing “I’m happy to say my aim is good but I forgot to take the wipes”. I am certain our climb team can figure out my laughter. We are all in the same boat.
Matt boils us some water so we can make packaged miso soup. Salt is so important on climbs. Then he nicely warms up our dinner which is burritos. We all immediately hesitate at the thought of such an adventurous dinner Night 1 but we’re all starving and inhale it’s mushiness while getting to know each other better. Our guides share plans for tomorrow and we all eagerly head off to bed at sunset as the cold is moving into our bones. As usual, days of trekking involve climbing, eating and sleeping. The potential of 10 hours sleep at 6000 feet with the sound of rushing waterfalls on both sides is very exciting.
Monday’s wake up call just before 8am announces boiling water for our instant coffee and tea along with egg whites with bacon pieces.Today is mountaineering school and we’ll head off to the glacier right after breakfast for 6 hours of training with crampons, ice axes, self arrest and rope climbing. This is what we’ve been waiting for and we are all geared up until a storm cloud heads in a few minutes later. Matt and Craig read something into the clouds that we don’t and order us to our tents to ride out the storm. They do not want us to get wet at this point. Luckily, 45 minutes later the weather has changed again and we make a quick hike up the mountain to our training point.
First instruction in school includes how to properly perform a glacier walk kick, then we’re taught how to tie on our crampons and spend a good hour learning proper flat foot plods, turning and climbing technique.
We are all excited to get glacier weapons in our hands; time to learn about the ice axe.
Before you know it we’re being held by our legs at the top of a glacier hill learning how to self arrest as they let go of our legs and we slide head first down the ice. Self arrest involves making the ice axe a part of your chest and turning quickly to impale the blade into the ground along with using your crampon toes to help stop your slide. It’s not something that is natural at first but we are expected to concentrate and learn quickly. Jeff and I try our best to behave ourselves, everyone else seems so studiously focused. It’s just not our nature despite being 20+ years their seniors. We try so hard to not laugh, eventually guilted into submission results in self arrest success.
There is a forward bum slide, then a head first belly slide, then a position I can’t imagine falling in, head first on our backs. This could actually be a heck of a lot of fun without the weapons. It takes us several hours to quasi master self arrest.
Thankfully we had this extra day added for school, I could not imagine learning all this on the mountain as we climb to the summit like many people do. It also provided us all an extra day to acclimate to the altitude which I think helped immensely. (Read on altitude – https://karengeterdone.com/2015/07/27/altitude-or-attitude/ )
Our final task of mountain school was learning how to climb with a rope team. We would have 2 groups. The directness of our guides immediately stepped up when we were on a line. They expected 100% compliance and retention, no mistakes. We always had to keep the ice axe in our uphill hand so with switchbacks the rope would cross in front. It was ackward. I made the mistake of saying that out loud. Matt got all stern, “It’s much too early in our relationship for you to feel ackward”, he just wanted us all listening and completely concentrating on every single step. We all got told off, yelled at, reprimanded throughout the afternoon. It definitely felt like we were in school again. Matt and Craig’s seriousness was a good thing because it helped us have more respect for the dangerous task we were about to take on. The reality is none of us, except our guides, had experience with a glacier climb. We weren’t as scared as we should be, they were helping us understand with their delivery.
So did we pass? News after dinner they announced. Back to camp to dry out and go search out some clean yummy glacier water.
Dinner was a quinoa concoction then Matt and Craig let us know that we would attempt the summit the next morning. On every climb you really need to have 2 possible Summit days since the weather can be so unpredictable. It looked like it would be clear to start about 2am. They wanted us sleeping by 7pm after we packed our backpacks. They’re so big and heavy, we weren’t expecting to climb with them but we did have to pack a lot of clothing for all the potential weather conditions along with food and several liters of water each for the day. The packs would be used as seats to keep our butts off the ice when we took short breaks. At least it wouldn’t be 50lbs of stuff but it would still be heavier than we thought for a summit bid. There was mention of a private talk after the group discussion. We suspected that Ilia might not climb with us and this ended up being the outcome. “If one has to come down, the whole team has to come down.” Yikes, both lines?! Apparently this is how it works. We were a big group with only 2 guides so we all went up together or we all came down together. If one person wasn’t up to the challenge, we would all miss out.
1:30am wake up call. Sleeping doesn’t really happen at altitude anyway, forget adding the excitement of a big day. Instant coffee and oatmeal is not the best way to start my day. Where is Timmy’s coffee and Jeff’s omelette? I am definitely noticing a clear difference between climbing in 3rd World countries versus a 1st World country. I would love to put my own personal chef to work, but oatmeal will do the trick.
It is dark as we’re all bopping our headlamps around camp trying to find our gear. This is not the day to forget something. It’s actually quite warm for a glacier so I take off my Gortex and decide to climb in my trusty running leggings that got me through winter runs during the coldest of Canadian winters. Once we get moving I will not miss the extra layer.
It’s a 20 minute rocky hike to the start of the glacier. Everyone in Gortex is already stripping down to the bare minimum. On go the crampons, we get clipped into the rope and start the path we practised on yesterday, a big swooping switchback up the side of a steep glacier. We are taking the Coleman Deming Route up Mt. Baker.
Eventually we pass ‘High Camp’ near the Black Buttes at 7000 feet and I am immediately jealous we didn’t make our camp up higher. 1. I really wanted to camp on the glacier 2. It’s a couple hours less climbing on summit day. In about 12 hours I will completely understand why they did not have us hike to this higher camp.
Shortly after passing the sleeping glacier campers, we stop at a flat piece high on a steep ridge. In 2 rows still attached on our lines we sit on our backpacks facing each other. Time to hydrate and snack. Matt asks if anyone has to go to the washroom. I do but I’ve already decided I’m going to hold it, there has to be a better option later. Matt checks us all out as no one is making the first move. “You really should just let it go, your body is using energy keeping it warm” LOL seriously?! I remain quiet but 2 guys turn around to do their business. Matt knows the girls are holding out and asks again. I confess. Wow, they should include this ‘Nature Calls’ stuff in the brochure. Here we go. Should I hum the stripper song as I try to privately pull down tight running leggings? Shockingly, I’m not ready to reveal the real me just yet. Suddenly there’s the sound of warm liquid hitting the glacier and the rising steam is a bit embarrassing, even in the dark. Someone please break the silence, this is like the longest pee known to woman! Peeing with 7 sets of eyes and headlamps pointing at me. Matt finally says, “Now doesn’t that feel better?” Any pride I still had pretty much went down the glacier toilet. I can just sense that Jeff is going to burst with laughter any second as one of my predicted fears becomes a reality. I don’t even look at him, inside I’m totally laughing too but their are 2 more ladies who have to be initiated. Guess who jumps up next to turn his back? Mr. ‘My Pee is Scared’ Jeff. Then 2 more and, well, aren’t I happy to break everyone’s pee silence. The boys are making heart and mountain shapes in the snow and we are all again on the same page. Definitely TMI!
Craig is pretty insistent his group is the first line and he is fast. He held the speed record on Mt Rainier for several years. We think Matt is fast enough and we are never more than a minute or 2 behind the first line anyway. David is doing his best to keep the pace at the end of Craig’s line.
We start to bridge crevasses. They look so cool and we are lucky that they are clearly exposed at this time of the year but, at all times of year, the edges and bridges can be a hazard. We are to step in the exact footstep as Matt, all 4 of us repeating the same exact footsteps. Pictures are an impossibility, it is still dark and we are all tied on a line. There will be no stopping around a crevasse. I secretly hope for a shot on the way down.
As we approach the Colfax ice fall to the right of us, I look to the left and see the most amazing moon. It is red! There is a dark red sliver on the left side but the rest of the moon is a hazy pinkish red colour. Matt tells us the moon is this colour due to all the wildfires in the area. Amazing a fire can have such an impact. For us climbers, it felt as though we are walking on the same level as the moon and heading right toward it like it was our martian home. That image of the moon will remain imbedded in my brain, it will have to stay there, we were on the move and no pictures allowed!
Looking down the mountain our guides announced, “There’s Vancouver”. We could clearly see the lights and shape of the city. It looked so close but it was actually a 3 hour drive away. As the sun started to make an appearance, I was somehow able to sneak some shots with the GoPro I hid in my bra during our last break. With both hands occupied on a line, it’s not an easy exercise getting pictures.
Around this time we start to experience a strong smell of sulphur coming from the volcano. Depending on the wind, this comes and goes for the rest of the day.
After some steep switchbacks through the snow, we stop for a break on the notch of the Pumis Ridge, called this for the pumis stone that radiates heat and is clear of snow in the Summer months.
Getting a break at the only rocky portion on the mountain caused excitement. Many of us wanted to find a private place for some private business. Micha unhooks himself right away and gets told off by Matt. “Don’t do anything without permission”. Lesson learned for all of us. We all get a chance to unhook after probably 5 hours on a line together. There isn’t any real privacy but it is so much better to do our business a few feet away from the team. “Make sure you collect it all in your bags, protect the glacier”
Then we climb the steepest pitch called the Roman Wall for over an hour. Every ounce of energy is focused on clamping all the points of our crampons deep into the ice and snow to secure our steps. The ice axe is in one hand helping us anchor to the hill while our other hand is lightly holding the rope. Matt sets the pace and we all follow like obedient sheep. Looking up was not a good idea. It was so steep you actually had to crane your head back so far it threatened to throw off your balance. It wasn’t a good idea anyway, the top never seemed to get much closer. This is the only portion where my breathing took on a noticeably faster pace then my steps but I had no desire to stop. I enjoy climbing up and I feel strong. Coming down, quite another story.
Eventually we reached the top of the wall where it levels out to what is called the Roman Mustache indictative of the way the glacier flares out on either side. At last there is a long flat stretch.
As we came over the hump of what we thought was the summit, we had a bit of a hike to a dirt mound off in the distance.
What you think is the summit is never really the summit. Mountains like to surprise you. What is a big mound of dirt doing at the top of a volcano? I’m sure August is the only reason it is not completely covered in snow and ice. Alas, the Summit of Mt Baker!
Mt Baker is apparently named after a government official. I prefer the native name of Komo Kulshan which means White Watcher. We could totally understand how it earned this name.
“What goes up, must come down”! My joy is over! LOL, not really but descending is definitely a different challenge for my brain. It feels like we are only at the Summit for 10 minutes and we’re already packing up our cameras and heading back the way we came.
All is good until we hit the Roman Wall. What a glorious slide that could be! Too bad about the crevasses you might land in or I could easily have taken the easy way out. About half way down I have my first fall, on my butt. Not a big deal, I just caught the point of my crampon.
An hour later we’re looking down a cliff I don’t even remember coming up and being told how to use our ice axe and crampons to scale the wall. We will all have to make the same moves at the same time since the rope between us is only about 5 feet. At first it is scary but I find myself worrying more about landing a crampon point on someones head rather than taking the whole rope team down the mountain with me. After a few moves I am actually loving it and by the bottom of the cliff I really wish we could do it again. That experience, overcoming my fear of a big fall, was the highlight of my climb. Even more than reaching the summit since I didn’t have any doubts about getting to the summit.
As you would expect descending a mountain, there are many steep portions but what is making the journey harder than usual is the overly nice weather. It is beautiful, sunny and hot. Most of us are just in thin, long sleeve shirts at this point. The sun has melted the ice crust off the snow and each step your foot either twists, slips or breaks through to high up your calf. It becomes exhausting.
Jeff and I have several falls as we get more tired. As I land on my back with my head facing down the mountain I vividly recall my thoughts from yesterday wondering how anyone could get themselves in this position falling. As I’m lying there I look down the mountain and I totally and completely buy into the whole rope team thing. Not a problem. Thanks team. Then I thank Misha who takes his team role seriously and immediately goes into the ice arrest position in the snow as soon as any of us fall. He would be our anchor if a chain reaction started. I praise his intensity. With him and Matt on either end, Jeff and I are in very good hands.
We’re told by the other line team that Craig kept pushing them faster and faster down the mountain. They were having trouble keeping up. Every once in a while we would catch up and it was because Craig would meet someone he knew or try to befriend a climber heading to the summit. Between social moments though, he was pushing his team. I was quite happy that Matt was allowing the odd moment for some pictures on our descent.
When we finally got back to where our mountaineer school had taken place the previous day, it is all we could do to sit down and take off our crampons. Thirsty, hungry, tired, sweaty and almost content. I am sure the last 20 minute hike back to our camp took us much longer, it definitely seemed like more of a hell hike than the beautiful trail from yesterday. As we crest the last hill, we all got a raised waving arm from Ilia. We had probably been his entertainment on the mountain for the last several hours. It was so nice to be back at camp!
Officially 12 hours of effort to summit and descend back to Base Camp. I did not even want to take off my boots, I wanted to fall on my mat and go to sleep. Jeff has some famous romantic moments on mountain descents, this time he saves it for base camp and offers to take off my boots. I love that he offered and pronounce my usual “I’m independent” which makes him laugh. We quickly ponder our accomplishment and give ourselves a high five for keeping up with ‘the kids’. Both of us are moaning and mumbling “what were we thinking” and Jeff announces “no more glaciers for me”. Descent was hard! We are overcome by sleep and crash for 2 marvelous hours!
Craig is outside our tent, “Time to pack up camp”; we’re moving on. It happens every single climb! Just when you think you’re ‘home’ they tease you with a nap then kick your butt. “We’re going to sleep in the forest tonight”. As if packing up camp isn’t enough effort, this climb it means we must descend 1100 feet of crazy steep rocky scree while carrying 50lb backpacks with rubbery legs. I know I must. I know I always feel better the next day. I don’t think I will ever get used to this part of summit day. I slip slide my way down and land my butt on rocks a few times. It is hardly possible to save a spill on these hills when you’re wearing a weighted pack. Maybe if I had fresh legs, but they sure were not fresh.
Then, by the time we arrive at our last camp, I am a new person. Relieved to take off my pack for sure but I have a renewed desire to expend some social energy. This is due to the lower altitude and the endorphin high of the day. It is about 6pm and we’ve had a very active day since wake up call at 1:30am. Camp gets setup in record time and we all enjoy our most communal meal yet reliving our day.
We had the most amazing sleep! We wake up early feeling like we could climb all over again. In fact, Jeff and I are already discussing our next climb possibility. Jeff pipes up “So tell me about that mountain in Russia you want to do”. I’m shocked, it’s just 16 hours since he grumpily announced no more glaciers. Summit day is a bugger, it beats you up. How soon you forget it though, I compare it to childbirth. Your brain moves on, your body moves on. I just didn’t expect him to adapt quite this quickly. The possibilities are endless! We join our group for an extra long breakfast then I crack open the mini plastic wine bottle I brought for a group sip celebration. We are boisterously happy and refreshed.
It’s just an hour descent through the forest, over the waterways, along the day hiker’s trail and out to the trailhead. We high five each other, dump our smelly garbage and carpool to the closest pub for our last meal and group picture together. We are all now experienced glacier climbers. I feel so blessed to share these wonderful adventures and accomplishments with Jeff. It would not be the same without him so it’s a darn good thing I have boobs.
We are both officially Mountaineers! Wow, 52 and we totally ‘GoterDone’!
Article about our adventure published in a local newspaper: